Self-Regulation through Play

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I posted a question poll on  Twitter yesterday to try something new.

What kind of play promotes self-regulation – open ended free play or board games?

At first glance, those of us who work with young children will shout out happily: FREE PLAY! Why? Because it allows children  to explore their environment at their own pace and interests. It provides many opportunities for them to problem solve and access their imagination and creativity.  It gives them feed back loops to build vital connections in their developing brains. It helps them make meaning and gain mastery over childhood challenges or traumas. As Lev Vygotsky said:


No question. It is great stuff.

But my tweet was a trick question. Structured, close-ended games and toys also have their place in a child’s development of self regulation. When a child is in a stressful situation, sometimes a familiar game like CandyLand or Checkers might help them calm down and feel safe. If a child has played about something that made them feel vulnerable in some way, playing a close-ended game, doing a puzzle or coloring in a coloring book after more open-ended play can shore them up and help them get back to baseline. Board games teach turn taking, frustration tolerance, how to be a gracious winner and how to  lose without losing it.

When we think about how to best support a child’s developmental and emotional being, it pays to provide many different types of play. Sensory play with water, sand, shaving cream, oobleck or play dough is wonderful for toddlers and preschoolers. Constructive play with blocks, legos, cardboard boxes, any raw materials, is great for preschoolers on up. Dramatic play with play dress up materials, puppets, dolls, play food, miniature figurines, etc. speaks highly to preschoolers and young school aged kids. All children need to move their bodies, run, jump, balance, climb and take moderate physical risks in order to gain mastery over their body in space. Preschoolers can be introduced to board games, but the rules need to be flexible and adults should know that it is fine for a young child to change the rules so that they win. When children reach the age of 6 and 7, they can begin to learn to play by the rules and practice winning and losing. Games without toys such as tag, hide and seek, Mother may I, Simon says, kick the can,  and capture the flag teach invaluable lessons in social interactions, and teach kids to rely on themselves for entertainment.


We can learn a lot through observing a child’s play choices. We can see what they are drawn to and comfortable with, what challenges, pleases or frustrates them, and we can introduce new and less familiar activities to scaffold their growth. We can provide play time and attention as caring adults, and we can also make room for them to play on their own and with peers. Children need time to muck around and explore without an adult agenda always steering their play.

However you slice it, the more playtime a child gets, the more opportunities there are for cognitive, emotional, social and motor development. Advocate for play to be included every day in Pre-K and Kindergarten, and for recess to be part of the daily curriculum through grade school. Kids focus better on academics when they’ve had time to play out their sillies. Keep them growing a head taller than themselves at every turn, and you will be on the right track.

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One thought on “Self-Regulation through Play

  1. Love it- yes- ALL PLAY supports growth. Dr. Stuart Brown talks about our play histories…as we learn a lot about children through observing them at play, we also learn about our selves as we re-examine our play histories. (There is hope, in play, for the grown ups too.

    Liked by 1 person

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